On the Dignity of Women

Notre Dame students have developed an alternative to the controversial play “The Vagina Monologues” based on the writings of Edith Stein. By Valerie Schmalz.

When Amelia Ruggaber was date-raped the summer after her sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame, the only thing on campus dealing with the issue of sexual violence was the play “The Vagina Monologues,” she said.

“There really wasn’t anything that was student-run,” Ruggaber said, and without a peer counseling group, “You had to go through Residence Life for help, which is very intimidating for a lot of students who have been a victim of sexual assault.”

With its emphasis on immoral sexual practices, including a lesbian seduction of a minor, as a path to healing, Ruggaber said she found little help within “The Vagina Monologues,” and eventually turned to friends and faith for healing.

Enter the Edith Stein Project, a conference on women’s identity based primarily on the thought of Pope John II and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the Carmelite nun and philosopher who died at Auschwitz in 1942. Before converting from Judaism and entering religious life, St. Teresa Benedicta was known as Edith Stein.

Organized by The Identity Project of Notre Dame, the Edith Stein Project is an annual conference offering an optimistic perspective on the future of feminism by emphasizing the dignity of human persons and the unique role of women in society, according to its written statement. 

Each year the conference addresses tough, gritty issues.

“The Edith Stein Project challenges each individual participating in the conference to take an honest look at our society and how it treats women,” stated the literature for the March 28-29 conference. “We feel it is important to examine the degrading attitudes towards women that are often taken for granted and to question their root causes.”

Ruggaber spoke at the first conference and will speak this year, focusing on the importance of dialogue and prayer. The 2004 Notre Dame grad, now assistant director of campus ministry at St. Mary’s College across the road, is married and 35 weeks pregnant.

Ruggaber’s topic, “Eating Fruit from a Wrong Tree: Modern Eve and Sexual Healing,” addresses flawed searches for meaning. “Just as Eve went on her own to try to solve what was missing in her relationship, I feel a lot of women are doing that with their sexual healing — not working with the other half of society.”

Disordered Views

While the Edith Stein Project was launched partly in reaction to the annual production of the controversial play, its identity is valuable whether or not the play continues at Notre Dame, conference organizer Madeleine Ryland, 23, said.

Disordered views of the human person underlie the mistreatment of women, according to the project statement: “This misunderstanding has grave consequences for women, manifesting itself in different forms of violence: domestic violence, abortion, rape and pornography. It even distorts women’s vision of their own feminine worth, leading them to do violence against themselves in the form of eating disorders, objectification and other problems.”

“Pope John Paul II said that the conjugal act between husband and wife is actually an imitation of the self-giving love of the three persons of the Holy Trinity,” said Legionary Father Walter Schu, a conference speaker. Father Schu teaches at his congregation’s novitiate and humanities college in Cheshire, Conn., and is the author of The Splendor of Love, a book on the theology of the body.

“‘The Vagina Monologues’ takes something that is beautiful and exalted and that reaches the highest level of human self-giving and distorts it and degrades it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the controversy regarding the sexually explicit play continues, since after a one-year hiatus Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame president, allowed a production March 24-26 in a classroom, followed by a panel discussion.

“Notre Dame’s policy on controversial events rests on the conviction that truth will emerge from reasoned consideration of issues in dialogue with faith, and that we will educate Catholic leaders not by insulating our students from controversial views, but by engaging these views energetically, in light of Catholic teachings,” Father Jenkins said in a written statement March 10.

Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop John D’Arcy denounced the decision. A February bishops’ meeting had already moved off campus because of the expected performance.

“The play is little more than a propaganda piece for the sexual revolution and secular feminism,” Bishop D’Arcy wrote in a March pastoral letter. “While claiming to deplore violence against women, the play at the same time violates the standards of decency and morality that safeguard a woman’s dignity and protect her, body and soul, from sexual predators.”

Noting that the play will be performed during Easter Week and as part of the “V-Day” international campaign promoting the play and its agenda, Bishop D’Arcy also wrote: “Most importantly, the sexual sin, which the play depicts in several scenes, desecrates women just as much as, if not more deeply than, sexual violence does.”

“There is clearly a disagreement between Bishop D’Arcy and Father Jenkins on what a Catholic university should be,” said Anthropology Department Chairman Mark Schurr.

The anthropology, sociology and political science departments are sponsoring the student-initiated performance, he said. “I disagree that the play is pornographic. Pornography is a legal term.

“I think what we’d like to be able to do is to produce students who can think critically about controversy in a way that is informed by the Catholic tradition,” Schurr said. “And one of the ways to do that is to provide models, like academic panels, that show how those discussions could be responsibly done.”

The Register could not reach students performing the play.

Meanwhile, the Edith Stein Project is expected to draw more than 300 attendees, while in contrast students are fatigued by the perennial performances of the “Monologues,” Ruggaber said. “I don’t feel there will be any true healing, any true understanding of what it means to be a sexual being without the two sexes. I am not a fan of the ‘Monologues.’ Let me just put it this way: I prefer a dialogue.”

Valerie Schmalz is based in

San Francisco.